By Treena Hein
(Athens) – When a major tragedy strikes, rebuilding can seem like a distant reality. That was certainly true for the Verburgs of Roosburg Farms in Athens, Ontario, who had a major fire in early 2013. But more than two years on, they are again up and running, with the latest technologies in place to ensure top-quality milk, the best animal care and maximized profitability.
It was in January of 2013, in the middle of the night, that the barn fire began. Dozens of firefighters battled through the darkness until noon the next day, but all 130 cows were lost. “Almost our entire pedigreed herd was gone,” says Ian Verburg, co-owner of the farm with wife Abbey, his parents John and Debbie, and his older brother Cole and his wife Anjela. (John’s parents Nick and Jackie are also active in farm operation.) “My father and grandfather had been building up our genetics since starting the farm in 1960, and were close to earning a Master Breeders Shield. We’ve always had purebred lines and it was hard to comprehend that almost all of that was gone.” At the time of the fire, the Verburgs luckily had 48 bred and un-bred heifers in another barn.
Rebuilding the herd would of course be a long-term goal, but getting a new barn in place was the immediate focus. Perhaps the only bonus from such a fire was the opportunity to design a building to meet all their needs and incorporate the latest technology. The new barn features a viewing area for visitors and school groups, a vet diagnosis and treatment room, maternity pens and more. An adjoining nursery has a computerized system that keeps track of calf milk intake and automatically handles weaning. To help the calves feel comfortable, the nursery has skylights and landscape murals, painted by Debbie, Abbey and Anjela.
The Verburgs decided on a robotic milking system that is one of only three or four in Ontario. “In a feed-first system, the first one we had, the cows are obviously fed first and the only enticement to pass through the milker is to lay down,” Ian explains. “So you would get cows laying down after they ate but before they were milked and blocking everything.” In the milk-first free flow system they use now, cows enter the barn and pass through a sort gate into a crowd area. Each cow has an electronic collar, and the system uses its data to ‘decide’ whether or not to milk her through its database of normal individual milking times. Either way, if it’s not milking time or if milking occurs, cows are then allowed to enter the feed bunk area and return to their beds as they like. Cows make 10 to 12 visits through the system a day, and are milked three to five times.
“They do receive a little feed at the milker as an enticement,” Verburg says, “but what they really want is the high-quality feed in the bunker…But we have to make sure what’s in the bunk doesn’t get too hot or dirtied, or you will see their behaviour change.” The Verburgs are milking 85 cows as of the summer 2014 and were milking 90 at the time of the fire.
This system requires two-thirds fewer pellets than other systems, which helps to reduce costs. For the actual milking, a 3D infrared system attaches the cup to teats within seconds, with washing, drying, pre-stripping and milking all tailored to each cow’s preferences.
If you aren’t yet impressed, read on. In case of malfunction, the system will call the Verburgs through their smart phones (about once a week), and they can also access a barn camera at any time. The bedding for the cows is made through a fairly new process, and from an unlikely source. “All our manure gets pressed, the solids get composted into bedding and the liquid goes on the fields,” Verburg explains. “It’s so soft and absorbent. Our cows are very clean and dry.”
The future looks bright for the Verburgs, thanks in part to the community raising about $50,000 to help them with costs not covered by insurance – and a surprise gift of 30 embryos from some of the best herds in the province. To show thanks, the family not only built the viewing area, but also created a large meeting room in the barn for community use. “These are only small gestures,” Verburg says. “The support of family, friends and others has been incredible. We could also feel God taking care of us. It was a horrible loss but our faith in God, and our friends and family remains.”
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